The documentary film titled The Corporation (2003) attempts to present to the viewer different facets of this institution. The points of view presented in the mainstream media are quite different from the actual realities associated with business corporations. The documentary is based on a book written by Joel Bakan titled The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, and is made by the team comprising Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott. As the title of the book suggests, business corporations are all too often guilty of pursuing profits over the interests of people and the environment. This thesis is suitably demonstrated in the documentary through a compilation of interviews, film clips and case studies from the past. Divided in three one-hour episodes, the documentary succeeds in showing to the viewer the various negative aspects of a business corporation, which often gets little attention in the mainstream media and popular discourse.
One of the major themes of the documentary film is the damage done to the environment by large business corporations. With commercial profitability being their primary motive, many large corporations neglect to address the negative impact on the environment. For example, many paper mills in the U.S.A dump toxic effluents from their processing plants into the nearby stream or river, causing irreparable damage to the local ecosystem and also increasing risk to human beings. The other criticism leveled against corporations is their tendency to exploit cheap labor in Third World regions. A classic example of this is the substandard wages paid to workers of Nike in Indonesia, who get less than one percent of the marked price of the goods they manufacture.
Another well-publicized case is that of Monsanto Corporation, which introduced into the market a bovine hormone injection which had proven unsafe for both animals and humans during the testing stage. Cognizant of this risk factor, Health Canada had banned the injection in Canada – a move that was repeated in many European countries as well. Only in the United States was the injection allowed to enter the markets, which eventually caused much suffering for the animals and put the safety and wellbeing of consumers at risk. In the case of Monsanto, the Fox News network refused to broadcast an investigative story about the company due to fears of loss in advertisement revenue. The essence of this situation is concisely captured by Grant Ledgerwood in his book Environment Ethics and the Corporation as follows:
“The 1,000 largest corporations in the world drive international investment. Thereby, these businesses have a more direct impact on planetary environment than do governments. Reflecting a growing awareness of this impact, leaders of international business must accept responsibility for the environment. Moreover, business has an impact on cities and human habitats which are ever more urban; therefore, exploring the urban dimension of how business manages the environment is also important.” (Ledgerwood, 2000, p.2)
The other important theme covered in the documentary is the psychological assessment of a corporation’s traits, since they are given legal rights and privileges on par with that of citizens. The conclusion drawn by this psychological profiling is quite astounding, for it was ascertained that the corporation is psychopathic in nature. This psychopathic nature is by no means inevitable, but was rather devised by corporate lawyers wanting to please their clients and a judiciary that lacked foresight and restraint. Noam Chomsky, a noted public intellectual who was interviewed in the film, draws attention to this mistake made by the Supreme Court when in the late nineteenth century it granted corporations all the rights that a flesh-and-blood human being was entitled to. This crucial event would have a profound impact on twentieth century history as the corporation would displace the nation-state as the most powerful institution in world politics.
Sufficient evidence is provided in the documentary from published reports, firsthand accounts of employees, interviews of industry leaders, public intellectuals and social activists. Hence it can be stated that the documentary has been effective in conveying its message in an objective manner without compromising on facts and evidence. It’s central arguments and conclusions arrived thereupon are both logically sound and persuasive. What makes the film even more convincing is the fact that people from fields as diverse as the academia and the industry are interviewed, which otherwise would have constituted bias on part of the film makers.
Activists like Noami Klien, Joel Bakan and Noam Chomsky have raised these issues in their speeches, interviews and written articles. As a result of these efforts, the general public has become more conscious of the ‘social responsibility’ side of business corporations and has become more demanding of them. This claim is becoming more vociferous by the day, as the world endures through the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. This sentiment is neatly captured by Barry Zigas as follows:
“The idea that private enterprise should be harnessed to the creation of social capital is an old claim given new resonance by the financial crisis. After beggaring millions of people and threatening the global economy with ruin, banks and other credit providers surely have an obligation both to run their businesses soundly and to meet a higher standard of social responsibility. While some argue this could hobble, distract, or damage corporate focus on the bottom line, let’s be clear. It was not an excess of attention to social needs that caused the near total collapse of the world’s financial system but almost every other kind of excess.” (Barry Zigas, 2009, p.29)
Such examples gathered from additional research, go on to reinforce the validity and merit of the core arguments presented in the documentary. In sum, it is a very well made documentary film that does not deviate from standards of objectivity and balance, although in this particular case there is hardly anything praiseworthy about the modern corporation. The flaws inherent in business corporations can be set right to an extent by sincerely adhering to corporate social responsibility principles. But for every corporation that is earnest in this regard there will be ten others which are not. Hence, a more viable solution to protecting the interests of the environment and human health is through the enactment of strict regulations. But this is not going to be easy as long as the powerful business lobby continues its propagandist work in the corridors of the House of Representatives and the Senate. There is renewed hope, however, in the form of grassroots activism and localized community action. On the legal front, legislation such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 are much welcome as they tighten some of the existing loopholes in corporate governance laws.
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